Running the Family Business

Rob Spiegel discusses the pros and cons of running a family business.

Immigrants who come to America and launch a business have the right idea in their approach to running an enterprise – they get the whole family involved. Mom, dad, the grandparents, even the kids all pitch in to make sure the business is a success, whether it’s an ethnic restaurant, a dry cleaners or an engineering firm. While we struggle on our own to make a business successful, these immigrant families can’t believe how easy it is. That’s because everyone is helping.

A business that involves family members satisfies a number of needs. Family members who donate their time to the business keep the overhead low. Even if family members are paid employees, the outgo from the company is still plowed into sustaining the family.

In my first business, I employed a number of family members over many years. My wife put in countless hours without receiving a salary. She did the dull dirty work, and she also brainstormed on the strategy. Her mother also pitched in with mailings and deliveries. She was an immigrant herself from the Philippines, so she liked the idea of helping with a family business. Though she was an academic, she had it in her head that America was the place to do business, so she was delighted to throw her shoulder to the wheel. Her time, too, was free.

As the business prospered, I hired my father who wanted part-time work during his retirement. He was three states away, but he was eager to participate. He set up a fulfillment operation in a spare bedroom. He was the ideal worker – enthusiastic, friendly with customers (some customers who lived nearby actually came over to visit) and, of course, he was trustworthy. You can’t buy the loyalty and enthusiasm you get from family members – it may be the greatest asset you get from family workers.

You also get camaraderie. The sense that we’re all in this together comes as comfort when the days are long, sales are spare, and rejection runs high. Doubt, fear, anxiety and panic are all mitigated by the shoulder-to-shoulder closeness of family. Even if you rub raw nerves occasionally with all this sweaty togetherness, it beats being out in the cold hoping the next call makes your day’s goal.

Perhaps the most critical aspect of working with family is that you get to spend time with family members during the long hours of work on a fledgling business. And it’s not bad time. Time spent working together is often superior to time off with family, sitting in a dark movie theater or watching television. It may not be as fun as camping, but working on the family business is an adventure you can share. That time working together can build strong, deep ties.

The years I worked with my father were a surprising gift. Like many fathers and sons of the greatest-generation-versus-the-boomer-hippie, my dad and I had many awkward years. The tensions eased over time, but when he stated working in the business, those tensions vanished and we become good friends. If he hadn’t worked with the company, we would have been friendly and distant. Working together, we developed a mutual respect and closeness I hadn’t thought possible. And unlike my young years when I rejected his views, during the years we worked together I pumped him for advice. It was good advice, too, since it was coming from the sincerest of motives – he wanted me to succeed.

Lest I forget the elephant standing in the middle of this idyllic room I describe, working closely with family can be very difficult if your relations aren’t smooth. Working together can be hell on a marriage. Weaknesses in the relationship are brought to the fore in a way that just doesn’t occur if you’re not in the close proximity of work. A friend once described the interactions between his parents who worked together – “They push each other’s buttons without even wanting to.” But at least it’s real. And if you can get it to work, your chances of businesses success are greatly increased.

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